As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Tomas Gonsorcik – former Chief Strategy Officer at VMLY&R US and incoming CSO at DDB North America – spoke to WARC’s Anna Hamill about why strategists need to understand the CMO agenda, adapting to a hybrid work environment and de-risking creativity.

When it comes to skills and expertise required by you and your team on a day-to-day basis, what have been the biggest changes over the past five years?

In sync with the increased pressure on CMOs to lead the growth agenda for brands, strategists are increasingly focused on identifying and validating new sources of growth. To do so, we are becoming comfortable searching for answers equally in culture or commerce as niche memes or niche shopper behaviors respectively can point to where mass growth could come from. And while the complexity is ever growing, the traditional planning skill of opening new, inspiring doors to creative solutions has never been more important. What good is a well analyzed problem if we can’t seize on the opportunity in groundbreaking ways?

What do you see as the biggest trends coming down the pipeline that you and your team will need to understand and adapt to?

Strategy is an art of decision making and I believe that strategists have the opportunity to help brands make choices that lead to sustainable and inclusive growth. A great example is the risk of greenwashing with the influx of marketing efforts around sustainability. Strategists stand between brands and consumers and it’s our responsibility to help brands make the right choices that earn them the right to make sustainability claims to consumers.

What steps (if any), are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for the future?

Our craft is everything. At VMLY&R, we organized our strategy group around Strategic “Studios” – centers of expertise that are designed to stay one step ahead of our clients’ most pressing challenges. Some of the studios are research, brand, experience, culture, and commerce. Each has a learning agenda to give every strategist the opportunity to expand their broad knowledge whilst offering pathways to go deep into a specific area. For instance, if I wanted to dedicate my career to cultural strategy, Culture Studio can help craft a training and career path for me.

Did the upheaval of COVID change any of your working practices as team? What have you learned from that time, and continued? What have you discarded?

For the longest time, I wanted us to go “back” until it clicked for me sitting in hastily organized brand positioning review: A hybrid meeting of 20 people, clients and agencies, in four different locations, across several time zones, in a cross-functional conversation about a future of a brand. Our kickoff had great energy, at the fraction of the travel cost and business travel’s associated impact on the planet, without multi-hour airport delays and missed kid’s birthdays. Though at the same time, I write this flying to a client summit as I believe our work will be truly hybrid. A lot of virtual, hyperconnected work combined with in-person moments to build a bank of trust that can carry the team through the ups and downs of the year. We are never going “back”, but we’re moving forward more thoughtfully connected than ever before.

How is your relationship with creative teams and clients changing over time? Have expectations from clients changed in terms of what strategists are expected to do?

Building on the previous point, I find we are more connected to the work and the clients more than ever before. What used to be a ceremonial presentation of the work can now be a quick message to sense-check the direction. Between agencies and clients, it does feel like we’re in it together as true partners. Conversely, to stand out in the primarily virtual work environment, we truly have to lead with exceptional work. Mediocrity disappears “below the fold” on Teams, Outlook or WhatsApp very quickly.

In the coming year, what do you expect to be the most significant threat to strategists/planners?

I worry about post-purpose cynicism. As an industry, we have made massive strides towards balancing purpose and profit in helping our clients’ brands grow, but at times things might have gotten out of hand. With some of the well-argued points on for instance “mayonnaise with purpose”, it is hard to resist the temptation to call BS on agencies’ purpose narrative. But as a young father and a strategist I believe that we have to overcome the temptation as this is a mission that not only leads to effective marketing, but can also make brands forces for good in the world.

In the next 12 months, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for planners/strategists to bring value to brands?

We have the opportunity to create less. Less data that doesn’t lead to breakthrough insights. Less slideware that doesn’t answer the core business challenge or inspires creative solutions. Less output that increases carbon footprint and doesn’t lead to creating consumer value.

What can strategists do today to upskill themselves for the future? What sort of talent are you looking to hire?

We must obsess about de-risking creativity. Businesses operate on extracting value out of their existing business models and to invent new ones is a scary, risky endeavor. We have the insights, the storytelling and the ideas to help our clients invent this new future for themselves, and in doing so strategists must lead the charge of eliminating perceived risk from creativity. I want to hire the brightest minds that want to do just that.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a hugely important area that the industry has been working on. How do you think this is progressing? What changes still need to happen?

Equitable participation of all in society and the economy must become a business imperative. I’m thrilled by the investment and the policy change we have seen across the industry, but we now have to embed inclusive marketing practices into everything that we do: from how we identify the growth opportunity for brands to how we connect with audiences and to how we deliver a fair value exchange on behalf of brands to the communities in which they operate.

How do you expect external issues such as sustainability, DEI, and the cost-of-living crisis to impact your work in the next year?

I saw a t-shirt the other day that said: “can we please stop living through historic events?” I empathize… I also believe that while sustainability, DE&I and the cost of living are significant issues, they are also opportunities for creative solutions. We are going through a great realignment of societal priorities and as a young leader, I am energized by the possibilities to create a better model for brands and for the economy in which they grow.

More generally, how are social and cultural changes impacting strategy and how are you and clients responding to it?

The significance of the changing demands on strategy to deliver a total solution for growth: from the products and experiences a brand delivers to how it communicates to audiences and how the resulting value exchange with consumers stacks up in the marketplace. The playing field for strategy, in the traditional agency context, has significantly expanded. Our profession matters. But with that expanded right to speak comes an increased accountability for the solutions we put forward.

In terms of technological and media transformation – i.e., Web3, media fragmentation, e-commerce, measurement, etc. – which changes do you see as making the biggest impact on the role of strategists?

Navigating the sources of consumer understanding is hugely exciting. Between becoming an expert in building owned experiences based on first-party data, predicting the perfect moment for a brand interaction based on synthetic data and driving transactions in the commerce-everywhere world, strategists will choose their own adventure and their personalized toolset to succeed in said adventure. We will continue to be our clients trusted advisors and will thrive on the diversity of perspectives that we bring to the table.

The last two years has disrupted so much about consumer behaviour and how we work. What’s your biggest lesson been?

Strategists can shape the future of brands and businesses. We just have to own it.